Movement to stop Chicago school closures will continue says union leader

Opponents of school closures in Chicago on Moday, May 20 completed a three-day march through neighborhoods affected by the proposed closures of 54 Chicago public schools with a rally at City Hall. After some of the marchers delivered petitions calling for a moratorium on all school actions to the offices of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, 26 of them  staged a City Hall sit-in and were arrested.

Those arrested were union members and staff, parents, and community activists.

The Chicago Public School board on Wednesday, May 22 is scheduled to vote on the proposed closures. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), told demonstrators that however the board, votes the movement to halt the closures will continue.

“Brothers and sisters, this is not over,” said Lewis to the protestors, who included teachers, parents, students, and other opponents of closures. “It is just the beginning. This is a movement through the neighborhoods. This is a movement through the city. This is a movement through the nation. . . .  School closures not only do not work, they can be harmful. They are child abuse.”

Later in her speech, Lewis reminded the audience that the movement will continue. “No matter what happens on Wednesday, (the movement) is not over,” said Lewis.

The CTU president, who received 80 percent of the vote in the union’s recent officer elections, ended her speech by calling for education justice that will happen when all children reap the benefits of true education reform that includes a broad-based, high-quality curriculum for all students, and not mind-numbing teaching to standardized tests for the majority.

During her speech, Lewis pointed out that Chicago has experimented with school closure to improve education. “School closures have been going on for ten years,” Lewis said. “The policy clearly does not work.”

Lewis also said that the Chicago Public School (CPS) administration was not up to the task of managing the closures. “You haven’t managed closing seven or eight schools very well,” said Lewis “How do you think you can manage 54?”

“CPS will mess up a one-car funeral,” she added.

As demonstrators marched around City Hall, they chanted, “Hey Rahm, let’s face it. School closures are racist.”

A fact sheet prepared by researchers at the Chicago Teachers Union, shows that the closings are indeed racist. “Schools with a majority black student population and majority black teaching staff are ten times more likely to be closed or turned around than schools with a minority black student population and teaching staff,” reads the fact sheet.

It also says that 90 percent of schools affected by the current closure proposal have a majority black student population and 71 percent have a black student and teacher majority.

Mayor Emanuel and the CPS board have justified the proposed closures by saying that the schools on the closure list are under utilized and that the city needs the money saved from the closures because it has a budget deficit.

But a recent report by the Chicago Tribune shows that the justification for the closures was based on selective data and that the estimated savings are questionable.

“A Tribune review of documents related to the closings raises questions about how CPS used information to promote and defend its plan. In many cases, the district appears to have selectively highlighted data to stress shortcomings at schools to be closed, while not pointing out what was lacking at the receiving schools,” reads the report by Bob Secter and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah. “In fact, total renovations to several of the schools slated to take in students would cost millions of dollars more than the estimated cost of fixing up the buildings where those children are currently enrolled, records show.”

Another report by Ben Joravsky in the Chicago Reader questions the Mayor’s priorities. According to Joravsky, even though the Mayor says that the closures are needed to help the city make up a budget deficit, “there’s still $55 million (of the city’s money) lying around to buy up some land and hand it over to private entities that don’t need it” to build a hotel and basketball arena near DePaul University.

No matter what the school board decides on Wednesday, the final decision may rest with the courts. CTU and parents affected by the closures have filed two federal lawsuits charging that the closures discriminate against special needs and African-American children and that the justification for the closures is false.

“We are not underutilized,” said Rebecca Nguyen, a teacher at a school proposed for closure in a predominately African-American neighborhood. “We use every classroom in this building.”

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